Below is Part 8 of 18 monthly installments for Visitant.
A shadow stained the surface of the placid pool, blotching out the stars as its shape realized itself. The thing rose from below with soft watery sounds, stepping onto the asperous terrain of the archipelago with slapping feet. Gertrude and the thing regarded each other. Her brother made an uneasy sound over her shoulder.
The September wind picked up. Seawater spit on their heels as it dashed against the rocky shoreline. Everything was freezing and wet and obscured under the unmitigated darkness of a moonless night in Innsmouth. It reminded Gertrude of certain evenings she dreamed of each night and wished each morning to have ripped from her memory forever.
A hand was on her face, wet and slippery. It touched her cheek, just grazing the bottom of the patch over her eye. Her brother’s instincts were very good, or he had inherited better night vision than her: he made an open-mouthed wail Gertrude knew signaled alarm. She could not get past the lump in her throat to quiet him. Thankfully, the keening subsided on its own.
A sound emerged from the dark form belonging to the hand. It started as a rasping scrape and ended in a hiss. Gertrude dug her fingers into her arms, closing them tight across her bosom to keep from trembling. The wind whipped her skirt around her calves again. Her skin prickled and the hair was caught in the weave of her stockings. Gertrude felt pinched and taut all over.
“Kajitūkin…” she faltered, trying to recall how to proceed. She was not even sure the word was the right one.
“I speak thine tongue,” the silhouette tilted to the side, its liquid eyes revealed more of the night sky as its head shifted position. “Thou kens it. What dost thou want?”
“I have a boon to ask of you… and your people.”
The thing waited, then gestured nearly imperceptibly. Such movements were often accompanied by a stirring in the human mind that was entirely uncomfortable. Like the prying loose of a memory long mired in built up defenses, the respondent would be momentarily immobilized as their brain automatically attempted to interpret intent. Most stopped it there.
Those unlucky enough to let curiosity carry them into that wordless correspondence found their way back to intelligible human discourse only through much pulling and prodding by their fellows. It was a prolonged and painful process. Gertrude recalled it only to ground herself when the memories brought her too close to that edge.
As if her brother understood what was happening, he reminded her.
“Trudy…” then trailed off.
Her head flinched in automatic response as the thing attempted to make itself understood once again. They seemed to be less worded than humans, relying more on gestural implications and body language to impart meaning into a conversation. Their word choices were awkward for any aurally reliant humans to decode at first, if they were anywhere within the confines of a known language. Otherwise, both sides had to work at length to understand each other.
Still, some motions, when performed without the accompanying psychic prying, could bring a conversation toward comprehension. However, in this case, Gertrude was at a loss. Her husband obviously failed to take into account the fact that she could not see in the dark.
“This year we would ask you take a man in the bride’s place.” Again, there was no audible response for a while. Just as she parted her dry lips to continue, it spoke.
“You cannot descry.”
“No.” she affirmed. There was a noise very much like sighing. She was taken aback by the human impression of it.
“We petitioned for the continuance of such a trade in recent past. They bade us wait some year, evading until the query decayed to nothing.” Recent to these things was a relative term. It could refer to last week or a hundred years prior.
Even with the ill-defined nature of such a qualifier, the word bounced around her head. It repeated like the even gusts of wind whistling off of hollow bits of rock from the amalgam they stood on. Recent. She began to make a mental note to bring this denied request up to the rest of the group, but realized their knowing this piece of information did not change anything.
Delilah, in the haze of her cough medicine, had once goaded her aunt into talking about her own marriage. The older woman had not gotten very far, but there were certain implications about the circumstances of her wedding nearly seventy years prior that did not sit well with Gertrude, nor with Betta who had also been present.
“We were promised certain things,” she began, then hushed up suddenly after glancing at her niece as if checking how much awareness she was currently capable of. It had been Delilah’s remarriage in 1915 that had begun the women wondering about their standing in Innsmouth.
Never before had an Innsmouthian woman been asked to remarry, and indeed there was much objection and public scandal when she attempted such a thing, no matter her husband. It was perhaps, a holdover from more Christian times in Essex County.
Two years later, when Gertrude lost her eye, nothing was done by town Selectmen. Indeed, Elias Gilman was the only man besides her brother to visit her during the recovery. He asked her to describe what had happened on her wedding night and she had thrown a book at him. Her brother all but tossed him from the house.
She physically recovered, gave birth to a child, and two years later there was another wedding. Her father never met her eyes again and soon spent more time at the Esoteric Order of Dagon than he did at home. The Selectmen still upheld the higher status of the wives of Innsmouth.
Gertrude’s husband rasped again. The next request would be more difficult.
“The men cannot know. You have to ask that the wives pick the next bride.” There was a long silence. The stars seemed to glimmer uncannily in the sky, and around them there were unnatural splashes that made her uneasy.
“I do this thing for you. Because we are kin and because we are wedded.”
Gertrude felt air fill her lungs for what must have been the first time in minutes. She thought it would ask her when she was joining it. When they would again be together.
“Soon.” He responded to her thoughts. Something turned over in her mind and she did not doubt it.
Finally, she offered it her left hand, thrusting out her forearm with the wrist turned up. There was a moment’s pause, then out of the darkness she was clutched by the webbed and clawed fist of her husband. It bent over her, expelling freezing breath before passing over a length of her wrist and forearm with its muculent tongue. A shiver of cold and disgust and fear in spite of her resolve passed through her heart.
The thing released her arm and held out its own at the height of her chin. She bent without touching it with her hand and awkwardly touched a dry tongue to its pulsating wrist. She tasted brine on its paraphyletic skin. It brought back traumas long past, as well as something deeper and older. Their parting ritual complete, the thing clacked its jaws percussively once, then leapt from the rocks.
All around the rock bank, there were the sounds of large things diving. The tide settled back into its rhythm and the night’s silence settled heavy under their slipping feet as they made their way back to the boat. Her brother held her hand as she clambered in.
As he turned back to remove the anchor from where it had been set in a dip in the rock, she watched a long fingered limb slide off the lip of the boat and back into the sea. Gertrude hoped that was the last of them.
Innsmouth was black paper cut against a navy sheet, with pinpricks of white showing through. Her brother rowed them toward a single light flickering in the wind along the ruined Innsmouth docks. Street lights were not lit along the wharves. The decrepit houses and shacks used for processing fish and other ill defined activities that bore no public discussion were kept permanently dark.
A swell hid their view of the minuscule lamp, and under the crushing canopy of the sky she was reminded of her wedding night and all the emotions her husband had stirred in her. She was terrified of him, and he had been as alien and unkind as she had expected. Yet coming to him was also very much like going home.
She had never felt out of place at her family’s Georgian house on Adams Street. Yet she had also never been comfortable. There was a sense of waiting that hung over the Tanners until Gertrude had been married.
Marriage did not bring joyous feelings, but fulfilling her duty did make her feel a sort of calm. She had become confident and determined before coming to him. Perhaps that had made what happened that night less shattering afterward. Not that she remembered much after.
The light returned and Gilbert rowed them smoothly into mooring. Together, they dragged the boat ashore and returned it to lean between two houses falling in on themselves. There were noises coming from the other buildings that put her on edge.
“Come on, Gilbert. Let’s go.” As they rounded the corner, and walked up State toward the Federal Street bridge, her eye socket began itching.
► Next installment: BEVERLY